Rachel Goddard has been a pollworker in New York City for five elections, most recently working as an inspector at the ballot scanner for the New York City primary election on September 13th. We asked her to tell us what kinds of problems voters have, and how she thinks the voting system can be improved.
The first election I worked on was the 2010 General Election, the first general election to use paper ballots read by optical scanners in New York state. As with any new voting method, we expected that voters would have some learning curve, however it was evident that there were several real hurdles in understanding the new system.
For example, voters would have benefitted from clearer indications—on the ballot–that the ballot continued on the other side of the paper. We scanner inspectors had been instructed to ask voters approaching the scanner if they were aware of the two sides nature of the ballot and that they could go back to the privacy booth to finish marking their ballots if they had overlooked the proposals on the back. Apparently not all scanner inspectors did this, and many ballots were cast without a vote on the proposals. Why not have a clear instruction to the voter, located immediately under the last contest where it is likely to be read?
Instructions on how to mark the ballot, by filling in the oval next to the candidates name, would be beneficial as many people simply do not think to check the back of the ballot for instructions on how to mark their selections and will mark their ballots in any number of ways unreadable by optical scanner. While the scanner ejects ballots it can not read back to the voter, it would save the voter an unnecessary trip back to their election district table for a new ballot to remark.
Another problem is overvoting – marking too many choices in one contest. With the lever machines in place until 2010, it was not possible to overvote, so New York State voters had never experienced this paper ballot phenomenon. Clarifying instructions and the ballot layout so that it is more apparent which candidates are running for which offices would help, especially when there are too many candidates to fit on one row.
So would good messages at the scanner. Unfortunately, the message in New York City’s voting system is confusing: One button says “Don’t Cast – Return Ballot” on a red button with an x graphic and “Accept” on a green button with a check mark, leading the voter to think that their vote would more likely be counted if they went with the friendly green “Accept” button which in reality, the opposite was true. This has been partially addressed in more recent elections: the color difference has been eliminated and both buttons are grey, but the confusing symbols remain.
Not message related, but also relevant to facilitating smooth operation of the optical scan process, is the matter of the arrow on the scanner bed. There is an arrow directing voters where to insert ballots but it is grey, the same color as its surroundings and is thus very hard to see. If the arrow were colored, it would assist many more people in inserting their ballots correctly.
Indeed, in 2010, and to some extent, in recent 2012 primaries, the scanner system has been regarded with suspicion by voters at my polling place, prompting questions such as, “Who manufactures this system?” or “Is this by Diebold?” and outright declarations of “This really isn’t going to work, they already know how to hack the system”.
A confusing series of messages, unclear instructions, and a difficult ballot to navigate will only compound these suspicions.
More easily understood messages as well as clearer ballot design will both better assist the voter in making sure their vote is counted and work toward creating a more favorable view of the voting process for voters.
To learn more about common problems in ballot design and messages that can cause lost votes, see the Brennan Center report, Better Designs, Better Elections.
The Voter Friendly Ballot Act would make possible a better ballot for New York would make possible (Thanks to Oxide Design Co and Design for Democracy_